Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Love Letter to Michigan

Dear Michigan:

You have taken a beating in the news for the last couple of years. The recession hit you long before it hit the rest of the country. You've had one of the worst unemployment rates in the nation, the Big Three came close to failing, and Detroit has been dubbed once again the murder capital of the country, if not the world. Kwame Kilpatrick's antics haven't helped either. Your shame was spread across the front pages of newspapers and featured on CNN. I am sure, Michigan, you want to hang your head and hide behind Canada.

I am here to say, Michigan, raise your head. I have lived many other places in my past, New England, France, and Chicago to name a few, and I love living here. You have a thriving arts community, music, museums, theater. You are incredibly ethnically diverse. Your naturally beauty is unsurpassed. Sports fans have a lot to choose from and frankly, you have some up and coming industries that everyone seems to forget about in the shadow of the Big Three.

First of all, let's talk Detroit. No one seems to be able to get past Detroit when it comes to talking about you. Detroit is like any other city, some places are good to go, some places are not. If you don't go to the Cass Corridor, you will probably be OK. Detroit has a lot to offer. Unbelievable dining (rumor has it Michigan has one of the highest number of master chefs in the country) in pretty much any cuisine you can imagine. Just to list a few: Ethiopian, Greek, Japanese, Russian, Polish, Mexican, French, Italian, Korean, Chinese. Speaking of food, what about Eastern Market? That fantastic kaleidescope of locally grown produce and products beckoning me on Saturday morning. We always go nuts and buy way too much when we are down there.

Detroit has a thriving arts community with theater, music, galleries, museums, and more. The great thing is if you live in the suburbs of Detroit, like me, it's all about 30 minutes away. No having to drive for a couple of hours like you do if you live near New York, or God forbid, LA. In 30 minutes you can be down town at the DIA (that would be the Detroit Institute of Arts for the foreigners) taking in a new collection, or at the theater enjoying the latest show. There are smaller events and places too numerous to even mention. Let's just put it this way, if you keep your eyes and ears open, you will never be bored living here. There is always something to do or see.

I also contend that Detroit has the best music scene, with a big variety of different types of music. Everywhere else I travel, on the radio it's all hip hop, rap, and pop with a couple country and christian music stations sprinkled in. Not Detroit, we have classic rock, classical, adult alternative, jazz, heavy metal along with the others already mentioned. Michigan is the birthplace of Motown and it still shows with an awesome music scene.

One of the main things that contributes to your arts community is the ethnic diversity of your population. In any given day, I will see a Jewish yamulke, a Muslim head scarf, a Sikh turban or an Indian sari. It is so common to hear someone speaking another language that it doesn't even register. My daughters friends are African American, Indian, Hispanic, Asian, German, Jewish, Hindu, Christian. She is truly color blind. Yes, we have racial tensions, but there are very few communities where all of these different types of people live together. It makes for a rich and interesting life.

The cool thing is that once you are done with the city, if you drive 30 miles from downtown, you are basically in farm country. Michigan is essentially a rural state. There are hundreds of square miles of town, county, state, and national forests, parks, and recreation areas. If you like the outdoors, Michigan is for you. We have the longest shoreline of any state in the US, so any water sport involving liquid or frozen lakes is popular here. Swimming, fishing, boating, ice skating, ice hockey, ice fishing are just some of the normal things people do here. I'm sure people have thought of other more exotic pastimes to get them through your famously long winters.

The variety of habitats and natural features here is stunning. Not only do you have the aforementioned farm lands, but there are second growth forests where people hike camp, and hunt during the season. On the western side of the state is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park with sand dunes that stand over 400 feet above Lake Michigan. There are also wineries Up North (in the fingers of the mitten) and on your western side. Not to mention golf courses, which although are not necessarily a natural feature, are beautiful and a lot of people play.

And, by the way, how cool is it that anyone that has a hand has a map of you? Where else can you say, "I'm going to the thumb" and everyone knows exactly what you talking about. I can point on my hand and show people precisely where I live. Try that with California!

Sports fans have four professional franchises to pick from, the Detroit Tigers (baseball), the Redwings (hockey), the Lions (football), and Pistons (basketball). The feeder team for the Tigers, the Mudhens, is located in Toledo. If your taste in sports is not covered by the professional teams, we have the Big Ten University of Michigan with all the teams you could possibly want to watch. The rivalry between U of M and State is highly entertaining. If you wear blue and maize to Lansing on the wrong day, you are in more danger than walking the Cass Corridor in Detroit!

The Big Three have been in the news a lot lately. People who live outside your borders probably think that is the only industry here. To be sure it dominates, but is not the only one. Battle Creek has an up and coming bio tech industry, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo are busy attracting companies from Chicago. Whirlpool, which has always been based here, has just recently decided to build it's new world headquarters in Benton Harbor. The film industry is bustling. As a matter of fact, the HBO show "Hung" is filmed on the lake I live on. The number of movies being filmed are too numerous to mention. We are more than the auto industry and anyone who doesn't realize that has grossly underestimated you and your population.

So Michigan, what I have to say is this: You may have taken a beating in the news and a lot of people outside the state can't think past the mayhem in Detroit and the economy but I know that you have the resources both natural and human to be great. I really love living here!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hopes for the Future

Last September my eleven year old daughter came home from school and said, “Mom, my teacher said all the students in India and China have higher IQs than all the American people combined. She said we will have to compete for jobs with them, so we had better work hard!” This statement caused me to pause for a moment. At first I thought, “How dare this teacher say such a thing to my daughter!” But as I got thinking I decided that this was one of those teachable moments that all the ‘experts’ talk about. That one statement encompassed so many divergent yet some how interrelated subjects under the one umbrella of my hopes and dreams for my child. I thought about standardized testing, what skills are really necessary to make it in the world, what jobs will look like in the future, what defines success, what my over all world view is, and finally how one embattled teacher is trying to lead these kids into the future.

First, I am certain that Elizabeth misinterpreted what the teacher was saying. I am sure her teacher was referring to standardized tests, not IQ. While it may be true that foreign kids do better on some standardized tests, my feeling is that these tests only measure one portion of the spectrum of human intellect. They are innately limited. Just like our eyes can only perceive one small tiny percentage of the light spectrum, so these tests only divine a small part of our children’s potential.
I also wonder, who is being tested? Other countries have significantly different educational systems that start tracking kids into educational levels at an early age. Are they testing the kids who are going to drop out in middle school and become farmers or only the kids on track for college? What about over all penetration of education in the population? In the US, every kid is educated, even kids that won’t benefit from an education long term. Do those countries that we compare ourselves so severely against do the same? Is every kid in every rural village, slum, or farm going to school everyday and then potentially a candidate for this test?

Later that day, while we were on our way to Walmart, I asked Elizabeth how she felt about what her teacher said. She said, “It scares me that I won’t be able to have a job in the future. I am afraid I won’t be able to support my family.” She was worried that people from India and China would move to the United States and take all the jobs and the Americans wouldn’t have any. Her response lead us to a big discussion about a global economy, outsourcing of jobs overseas, and what jobs may look like in the future. “You know, you can make your own job,” I said. She looked at me in surprise and said, “Really? Do you have to ask the government?” I laughed and said of course not and went on to enumerate the many people we knew who owned their own business. “Your Aunt Lynn owns her own company. If you become a musician then you will very likely make your own jobs.” Again, the answer was, “Really?”

The honest truth is that the career Elizabeth will have will not look anything like what my husband and I have today. Just like my job does not look like my parents. It is possible that Elizabeth will never work in an office environment at all, or on a limited basis. She will probably have a job with a set of skills that don’t even exist yet. She may work for a Chinese company, but not live in China.

The main point I wanted to drive home with her during this conversation is that I believe that the world is an abundant place. Just because the economy in China and India are doing well, does not automatically mean that our economy has to be doing poorly. In other words their success right now is not the cause of our current troubles. I believe that there is enough for everyone and the fact of the matter is if Elizabeth ends up making even half of what our family income is today adjusted for inflation, she will be wealthier than the vast majority of the world. I, like all other parents, wish my child to be more successful than I. But really what is success?

I think we spend a lot of time focusing on the material aspects of success, and the material aspects of having a career. A career is not all about making a lot of money. I hold out hope that Elizabeth will follow what she loves. I tell her over and over again that she should do what she loves and she will find a way to make a living doing it. Is her happiness worth the big house and car? What about balancing a family if that is what she chooses? Contentment, I think, is a goal in and of itself. Contentment is the dowdy sister of Wealth and Fame. She is ignored and cast aside in the pursuit of the others. But if you seek Contentment out, she will reward you with a life that is quieter than Fame will allow and not necessarily as financially stable as Wealth. But she is less fickle than both and you will have rich and textured life. That’s not to say there won’t be challenges, but you will be in the captains chair of your life, because Contentment is all about letting you be you. To me, a life richly lead with a lot of experiences and love trumps the material things any day.

And now I come full circle back to the embattled teacher. I can see her in her class room. She has more students and less money. She is desperately trying to prepare these kids for economic opportunities that don’t even exist yet, based on economic realities that are in their death throws. The US economy is in a tail spin and people are afraid and uncertain about their futures. Trying to prepare someone else’s is virtually impossible. She is fighting the kids to get them to read and write more. She is fighting the district for more money. And sadly, she is probably fighting a fair amount of the parents that either do not care, are so overwhelmed that they can’t even deal with their kids school work, or in their infinite wisdom, do not agree with her approach. She is afraid for the kids future and wants to try to motivate them to do better, to be competitive, to care about their future too. That is probably where that statement, “All the kids in India and China are smarter than you,” came from. And so I have to thank her because she gave me an excellent opportunity to talk to my child about my world view and hopefully help develop her own. But I do have this message for my girl: “Honey, there is nothing more important than an education and you will be reading over the summer.”